The Garden of Angels by David Hewson
Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours
r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.
Movie rating: PG-13
Publisher: Severn House
ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources
WWII historical fiction
From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.
David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.
Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.David Hewson, The Garden of Angels
Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.
There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.David Hewson, The Garden of Angels
I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.
The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.David Hewson, The Garden of Angels
The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.
If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.David Hewson, The Garden of Angels
Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.
That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.David Hewson, The Garden of Angels
The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.
Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.David Hewson, The Garden of Angels
The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.